With the taking down of three prominent politicians — a powerful intelligence official, a millionaire businesswoman and a senior official of a State-run oil firm — in the span of just two days, China has appeared to intensify an unprecedented graft crackdown that has, over the past few weeks, systematically dismantled the political and business network of a top former Politburo Standing Committee member.
The corruption crackdown, which has already ensnared more than a dozen high officials in the Communist Party of China (CPC) and in State-run oil firms, has now removed four senior aides of the former security czar Zhou Yongkang, who until the November 2012 leadership transition, served on the elite nine-member Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) as one of China’s most powerful politicians.
This unprecedented open purging of the network of Mr. Zhou, who has not been seen in public in many months, has intensified speculation that he could become the first serving or retired member of the PBSC — the Communist Party’s highest political body — to be taken down and placed on trial in more than three decades, since the purging of the “Gang of Four” following the Cultural Revolution.
The campaign led by new President Xi Jinping, who has made tackling graft a priority of his government, has served to underscore his authority. It has also exposed a web of graft that stretched from mafia groups in Sichuan to wealth State-run oil companies, and appeared to proliferate under the patronage of one of the CPC’s most powerful leaders, raising difficult questions for China’s ruling party.
So far, State media reports have not named Mr. Zhou. But the carefully orchestrated, and officially sanctioned, reports detailing the purges of half a dozen officials linked with the former security czar have heightened speculation about his fate.
As of last week, four officials who were known widely to have served as his political aides had all been removed from their posts.
On Friday, Liang Ke, a top official of the Beijing State Security department — an intelligence office responsible for handling both internal and external threats to the Party — was removed, official media said in a brief report. Separately, Shen Dingcheng, an official of a prominent oil company, was said to have been detained by investigators, according to two journalists at Party-connected newspapers.
Only a day earlier, Liu Yingxia, a prominent businesswoman with ties to the oil industry and an estimated net worth of $ 660 million, was removed from her post on a top political advisory body.
Ms. Liu, ranked by the Hurun wealth report as China’s 46th richest woman, had business dealings with the State-run China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), an influential oil firm where Mr. Zhou once served as a top official, before he took over the State security apparatus.
The three purges followed the removal of another top CNPC official and Central Committee member, Jiang Jiemin. In December, another former aide of Mr. Zhou, Li Dongsheng, a Vice Minister of Public Security, was placed under investigation.
The crackdown has also gone after businessmen in western Sichuan province, where Mr. Zhou served as Party secretary — his third power base, beyond the oil industry and State security.
On Thursday, the State-run Xinhua news agency published an unusually detailed report laying bare the collusion between mafia groups in Sichuan, real estate companies, prominent businessmen and Party bosses — a story of how fortunes were made by businessmen with the help of their Communist Party patrons, a common feature of post-reforms China but a narrative that sits uneasily with the ruling Communist Party.
Allegations of corruption centred around local tycoon Liu Han, who built an empire spanning energy companies, real estate and construction industries.
The Xinhua report detailed how gangs operated with impunity, shooting their rivals dead in Sichuan tea-houses in broad daylight.
Police seized three hand grenades, 20 guns, 677 bullets and 2,163 ball-bullets in raids.
Even the Party’s official People’s Daily on Friday published a series of reports detailing corruption of mafia groups and businesses in Sichuan. One report mysteriously alluded to the groups’ “protective umbrella” in the Party.
Another media report linked Mr. Liu with the prominent businessman Zhou Bin. It left unsaid that Mr. Zhou Bin was none other Mr. Zhou Yongkang’s own son.